Year XLI, 1999, Number 1,Page 27
THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION AND THE INTERNET
The scientific and technological revolution is producing extraordinary transformations in the means of production and in the life of every individual. Among the innumerable ways through which this phenomenon is manifesting itself in all fields of human activity, one aspect in particular, that of the success of the Internet, has become the symbol of the global society. The problems and potentialities connected to this development of information technology have entered the current debate through two symbolic images, that of the electronic (or information) highway, and that of the creation of a universal service. These images have the merit of highlighting the true nature of the challenge facing mankind in the new phase of the technological revolution opened by the Internet: the possibility of finally realizing the design, only sketched out by the Encyclopaedists in the age of the Enlightenment, of offering each individual the opportunity and possibility to find out at any time or place what mankind knows and what it can do. When the Internet originated in the late fifties, there was a theoretical plan to ultimately create a galactic network, by which it would be possible to share any kind of information on a planetary scale in real time.
This is not the place for more detailed consideration of the analogies between the aspirations of the age of the Enlightenment and those of the era of global communication. It is however worthwhile underlining that the birth, growth, propagation and realization of these aspirations took place in eras marked by the emergence of the role of the State — on a national scale the French state in particular between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and on a continental scale the American state especially from the second half of the twentieth century — in policies promoting science and technology. This role is well attested in reports on the state of science and technology commissioned by Napoleon at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and by speeches on the state of the Union by US Presidents from the end of the Second World War, which display not only national pride in playing a leading role in the development of progress, but also the consciousness of being able to increase human well-being.
Today there is general agreement that innovation can result both from individual spontaneous and fortuitous action, and from state policy. Yet in the case of the Internet one tends to undervalue this interaction between power and innovation and emphasize its spontaneous nature rather than the aspect of its government. The fact remains, as cause for reflection for the Europeans in particular (but not only — for the Russians too, for example), that the history of the success of the Internet is inseparable from the role played by the US government, and marks a grave failure for those states which, because of their purely national dimension (the European Union countries) or because of an accumulated technological lag (the former USSR and its satellites), despite having invested enormous resources in the development of the information society and/or in communication technology, have had to surrender to the Internet.
Before examining this aspect more closely, it is however worth clarifying: 1) in what sense the Internet is part of the scientific revolution, and 2) who governs the Internet.
As to the first point, in the definition given by Radovan Richta in the late sixties, the network of revolutions facing mankind was “a universal and constant process of transformation of the productive forces of human life, of their structure and their dynamic, in which science becomes the foundation of all production, opens up the way to complex technicalization of the productive base and eliminates the use of human labour from direct production, thus freeing manpower for the phases preceding production; it creates the conditions in which it is above all the general development of man and of his capacities and strength, which becomes the decisive element in the process of civilization”. What emerges from Richta’s analysis can be briefly summed up thus. The advance of the scientific and technological revolution should make it possible: a) to extend and deepen human interdependence; b) to liberate man’s creativity; c) to bring about a convergence between the processes of production and information transfer, and those of education; d) to create the material premises for a not yet well-defined revolution in the political and social field. The revolution of information technology and of the Internet in particular represents the most advanced and dynamic front in the network of revolutions described by Richta; it has developed by following a logic qualitatively different from that of the industrial revolution. The innovations of the industrial revolution had decisive importance in promoting the development of new means of communication on land telegraph lines) and in the airwaves (radio broadcasting), and of mechanization and automation of production, i.e. in promoting the birth and growth of distinct and specialized networks. The revolution in information technology has on the other hand made something absolutely new possible: the inter-operability of networks, i.e. the tendency to eliminate specialization by function from the different communications infrastructures. The Internet is the most mature expression of this tendency, having begun, at least in some parts of the world, to radically modify the way people research and buy, advertise and sell the goods they need for living and producing, and the way they store and transfer knowledge; and to make ever more widely available resources and information which until less than ten years ago were the exclusive domain of restricted circles of scientists, researchers and the state apparatus.
As to the second point, it has to be said that, despite this success, the Internet still only represents the embryo of a genuine global web of networks. In fact a global network, to be really at the service of all mankind, should depend on the policy of a world democratic government. Instead, now and for who knows how long, its development and government will depend on how the international balance of power evolves, in particular between the USA, Europe and Asia.
What is happening in Asia merits a fuller analysis than is possible on these pages. There, the Internet phenomenon has already launched policies of technological competition with the rest of the world, particularly in India, to gain leading and therefore controlling positions in the services which can be introduced on the Internet. China also merits a separate discussion, for it is beginning to constitute a problem on its own in the management of the regional register of Internet addresses. The fact is that the heart of the development of the Internet currently lies neither in Europe nor in Asia. In order to understand how the interaction between power and innovation in this field is evolving, it is therefore worth briefly recalling how the Internet was born.
After the Soviet space success with the launch of the Sputnik, the American government began to fund research projects in the attempt to bridge the technological gap, which at that time seemed huge. Thus an autonomous foundation within the Department of Defense was established to study all aspects of the development of communications. In the sixties this work produced the first nodes in the North-American continental network, linking the principal military research centres and specialized university laboratories situated on the US west and east coasts. In the seventies, the American federal government, like other governments of industrialized countries, began to finance research into the development of advanced digital communication technology, to strengthen ARPANET, the network of the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It was in this period that in the attempt to realize the “galactic network” dreamed of by the pioneers of the Internet, a primitive “network of networks” was born and began to develop, governed by the Internet protocols to enable connection between several networks. This innovation met two needs which were making themselves felt in American society. The success of the policies of promotion and control of communications on a continental scale, launched by Congress in the thirties (Communications Act, 1934), had raised the problem of automating telephone traffic control and management operations since the sixties — hence the need to create intelligent networks which could reduce manual intervention to a minimum, as it would be impossible to find enough operators to make the network function. On the other hand, they had stimulated the birth of autonomous user networks, like Usenet and Bitnet, which sought to unite the capacity of computers to process and store data, with the capillarity of the telephone network, so as to broaden and improve possibilities of sharing and exchanging information. Federal agencies also took advantage of this situation, not only in the field of defence, but in energy, health and the environment, which were able to extend and improve continental coordination. Innovation and the needs of society thus began to interact in the USA and to spread to other countries — but only from the eighties, as in Holland, one of the first Internet bridge tests in Europe — as a result of activity by multinationals.
It is therefore no wonder that the functioning of the Internet was and remains, de facto, in US hands. Indeed it is still only possible thanks to the system of centralized assignment of site addresses (the familiar — at least for those who use the Internet — Domain Name System or DNS), which constitutes the true “core technology” of the Internet.
According to the pioneers of the Internet, the secret of the network lies precisely in these numbers: whoever guards this secret controls the Internet. The system of assignment really fulfils the function of a world telephone directory which combines Internet names (for example www.euraction.org) with the numerical codes assigned by Internet Protocols (for example 220.127.116.11) for the univocal recognition of addresses on the Internet. This control has so far been exercised agencies such as IANA (Internet Assigned Number Authority), and, since 1992, by companies such as Network Solutions, under the direct control of the US federal government. But how can the rapid spread of the Internet on a worldwide scale be explained?
With the end of the Cold War many of the reasons for the restrictive policy imposed by Congress and the US Administration on the transfer of information technology disappeared. Thus, with a law passed in 1992 the US Congress authorised the federal agencies to make their own network infrastructures available to international trade, opening the way to commercial and private exploitation of the Internet. This decision helped attract new network applications, invented outside the USA. The first consequence was a further advance in the use of new protocols for communication between computers, including one (now known as http) invented in Europe by CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research), which had no chance of realizing its potential on the national European networks.
This new development opened the doors to the transfer, at low cost and by simple operations, of images, sounds and information between tens of millions of personal computer owners, putting an end to the European dream of competing with the USA in the field of information technology.
Europeans were the first in the world to explain how to live with the computer, but without worrying about developing an industry of the name in the personal computer sector. The Europeans financed ambitious national programmes for the computerization of their societies, but more with a view to reinforcing their respective monopolies and national bureaucracies than to extending the informational horizons of their citizens on a European scale. These choices proved to be the wrong ones. The symbol of Europe’s defeat is well summed up in the speech in which the French Prime Minister Jospin, after his investiture, declared the Minitel experiment substantially over. An experiment which in the space of twenty years had linked most French telephone users in one network!
The statistics showing the success of the Internet are now well known: in less than five years the volume of traffic on the Internet has equalled that reached by the telephone network in one hundred years.
In the space of a few years the Internet has become an important factor in the increase in communications and in internal and international trade for states, becoming an important instrument in world government: it is still possible today, with only thirteen computers, directly or indirectly controlled by the US government, to manage the archive of the world addressing system of principal domains, i.e. of regional and national registers of geographical addresses (America, Europe, Asia, .us, .uk, .de, etc.) and of activity addresses (.gov, .org, .com, etc.) attributed to users who wish to be on the network.
The American government itself recognizes that this system of government of the Internet is now inadequate for at least two reasons: it is not sufficiently stable, since the time has come to extend — but by how much? — the capacity to meet demand for new addresses; and it is not sufficiently secure for the transfer of confidential information, whether commercial, administrative or military. On the other hand governments and users, primarily the Europeans and commercial companies, are pressing for greater liberalization of the system of attribution of addresses in order to increase their own influence. The American government says it is favourable to privatizing the management of the world register of addresses, but has stressed the need to maintain a centralized system of control with its headquarters in the USA.
The growth of commercial and administrative use of the Internet also raises the problem of universally valid legislation to prevent any state gaining an advantage over other countries either in the commercial field or in military security. But at the moment neither Europe nor Asia is yet in a position to support the USA effectively in governing the Internet, and the conditions are not yet ripe to create a world federal controlling authority. The reform of the system of government of the Internet there fore depends on the respective strength of the various states in the international bodies coordinating communications.
In this context it becomes clear why the USA does not wish to renounce the position of strength which it still holds, and why the USA and Europe are responding differently to the challenges of the revolution in information technology.
The American government, determined to defend its world leadership, has decided on the one hand to accelerate the timing of the reform of the bodies controlling the Internet, and on the other hand, to launch the challenge to realize the Next Generation Internet.
Since 1996 there have been proposals to restructure the control of the Internet, envisaging the creation of a new corporation, “with its head office in the USA so as to promote stability and foster the maintenance of confidence in the technical experience which has matured in the USA in this sector”; this was indeed realized in October 1998. This corporation, under the aegis of the federal government, now has the task of producing a general reform by September 2000.
In the meantime the Next Generation Internet project should further increase the role of the USA in this sector, by transferring the core technology of the “old” Internet onto a US network capable of transmitting information at a speed of 100 to 1000 times greater than the present speed by the year 2002. This American commitment to the Internet is part of the general commitment shown by the federal government over many decades to supporting innovation: for at least forty years, 45% of resources for research and development in the USA has been provided at federal level. This commitment has had essentially one aim: to coordinate efforts on a continental scale to foster osmosis between innovation for civil purposes and innovation for military purposes. During the Cold War the accent was on the primacy of military innovation, today it is on the primacy of civil innovation, but the basic orientation is unaltered: it is up to federal government to guarantee the dual use of any innovation to conserve and increase American world leadership.
None of all this has happened nor can yet happen in Europe. The Delors Plan (1992) and the Bangemann Report (1995-6) are a pale reflection of what happens on the other side of the Atlantic. The Delors Plan, which did consider the problem of European infrastructural investment in the field of information technology, has been overtaken both as to method — deepening of cooperation between member states — and content — we are in fact already facing a new turning point in the development of the Internet. The Bangemann Report, although more recent and more specific than the Delors Plan, lays more emphasis on subsidiarity as a working method than on the central role of European institutions, and does not offer any cue to relaunch European policy in supporting innovation.
Thus, in the USA the dialectic relationship between innovation and new needs continues to find in federal power a decisive factor in coordinating the productive forces and in bringing together the social consensus on federal policy; whereas in Europe innovation, which still continues to flourish in various fields, cannot be translated into world power nor into applications capable of modifying social behaviour without American intermediation. In other words the Europeans seem to have embarked on a course similar to that taken centuries ago by Chinese civilization, which, though capable of producing innovations such as gunpowder before other peoples, was unable to exploit all their implications.
In conclusion, the beginning of reform of the system by which the Internet is governed once more confronts Europe with a choice between submitting to American decisions, or equipping itself with the instruments to contribute effectively and responsibly to the control of an instrument crucial to world order. And this choice increasingly coincides with that between maintaining the sovereign nation states and creating the European federal state.
Radovan Richta, consulted in “La rivoluzione tecnologico-scientifica e le alternative della civiltà moderna”, in Progresso tecnico e società industriale, Milan, Jaca Book, 1977, p. 72.
See Arati Prabhakar in Trade and Technology, Seminar Series at the University of Maryland, March 7, 1995 and in The National Information Infrastructure: A Revolution for the Millennium, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, October 4, 1995.
“To put France into a position of strength with regard to competitors who escape their sovereignty, the public authorities must without scruple avail themselves of their ‘regal’ prerogative: to command” (L’informatisation de la société, consulted in Convivere con il calcolatore, di S. Nora e A. Minc, Milan, Bompiani, 1978, p. 26).
Statement of policy concerning the management of the Internet Domain Name System, United States Department of Commerce, Management of Internet Names and Addresses (White Paper, June 1998).